Eyewitness 1863: Culture still finds its way to Pittsburgh during war

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Train service that linked Pittsburgh's "manufactories" to customers around the country also gave residents a chance to enjoy some of the nation's leading artistic talents.

During one week in 1863 the city played host to philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson, composer-pianist Louis Moreau Gottschalk and opera singer Carlotta Patti.

Gottschalk was New Orleans-born but a Union supporter during the Civil War. He took full advantage of 19th century modern transportation -- trains and steamboats -- to tour extensively. An advertisement in the Pittsburgh Gazette for his concert on Feb. 2, 1863, promised that "he will perform some of his latest compositions, which have caused so great a sensation in New York, Boston, Philadelphia, and all the Western cities." Many of his works made use of Creole and African-American folk melodies he heard when he was a boy growing up in the South.

Gottschalk and Patti gave performances on Jan. 31 and Feb. 2 in the city's Concert Hall on Wood Street. The second concert featured what the Gazette described as the premiere of a Gottschalk composition called "Papillon," or "Butterfly." The work was "composed expressly for Miss Patti ... and [was] to be sung for the first time."

"The wonderful performances of Mr. Gottschalk need no commendation from us, and we will not attempt either eulogy or criticism," an anonymous reporter wrote on Feb. 2. "Miss Patti was received with the warmest applause, and was encored throughout the programme," the story said.

The visiting artists were joined on stage by a local pianist identified only by his first initial and last name. "Mr. V. De Ham ... was warmly applauded and highly spoken of by his numerous friends in the audience."

Emerson's lectures on Feb. 3 and Feb. 5 were sponsored by the Mercantile Library Association, a young men's self-improvement organization. Similar to groups formed in other large cities, the association offered educational talks and operated a members-only library.

Talks like Emerson's represented an example of "one of the 'peculiar institutions' of the free and intelligent Northern States," the Gazette said. Lectures on "natural science, sociology, aesthetics, and metaphysics" contrasted with slavery, the South's "peculiar institution."

Emerson had not spoken in Pittsburgh for a decade. Potential audience members were advised they should not fear that his talks would be too far above their heads. "His style, either as a lecturer or author, is a model of chaste, vigorous language, condensed almost to abruptness, but at the same time clear and perspicuous."

Emerson's topic was "Clubs" and his venue also was the city's Concert Hall.

"The learned lecturer discoursed on the subject of conversation and conversation-meetings for more than an hour in a manner at once genial and discursive, methodical and didactic," according to a review that appeared Feb. 4. "Replete with illustrations and allusions, in which classic, oriental, romantic and Scandinavian lore yielded the flower and fruit of thought ... the lecture suggested much more than it expressly propounded or taught."

The evening was not perfect, however. Pittsburgh was in the middle of a cold snap. As a result the temperature of the hall was "somewhere between 32 degrees and zero according to our estimate of the sensibility of mercury in Fahrenheit's thermometer." That made the room comfortable for cold-loving oysters, the newspaper report concluded, but not for men.


Len Barcousky: lbarcousky@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1159. See more Civil War-linked stories in this series by searching "Barcousky" and "Eyewitness" at post-gazette.com.


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